Today’s meditation is on Jesus cursing the fig tree, but the retelling covers Matthew 21:1-22, Mark 11:1-24, Luke 19:28-47, and John 12:1-19.
The context of this event is very important: Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem for the last time on the first Palm Sunday. The people have all heard about Lazarus’s resurrection and turn out in droves, crying “Hosanna in the highest!”, carpeting the road before him with their cloaks and with palm branches like they did for the kings of old—effectively declaring Him king and Messiah. How heartbreaking that must have been for Jesus: He so desperately wanted the love and allegiance of His people, and they appeared to be giving it to Him; yet He knew that not only would they turn on Him, many of them would even cry out for His blood in less than a week.
His emotions are running high. Right after the initial encounter with the fig tree (by Mark’s depiction), Jesus enters the Temple of Jerusalem and finds it overrun with commerce, just as John’s gospel tells us it was at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This fills Him with righteous indignation, and he turns over the tables just as he did the first time, driving out the sellers and money changers. The Temple supposed to be the place of prayer and worship to the Father, and yet His people have turned it into something mercenary. He knows His earthly ministry is coming to a close. He’s done all He can do, and here’s evidence that the Jews’ hearts are still hardened.
The fig tree was a symbol of Israel (Hosea 9:10, Jeremiah 8:13 and chapter 24, Micah 4:4, Luke 13:6-9). In Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in Luke 13, after three years (the length of Jesus’ own ministry to the Jews), it is barren, not producing fruit (of repentance, of righteousness). The owner wants to chop it down, while the dresser of the vineyard pleads that it should be given special treatment for a bit longer. If it is still unfruitful, then it should be chopped down—as in fact happens when Jerusalem is sacked by the Roman army in 70 A.D. Meanwhile, the apostles spread the gospel to the Gentiles.
So when Jesus sees the fig tree with leaves, which should mean that it is bearing fruit (the figs precede the leaves on a fig tree, at least on the variety that grow in Jerusalem), and then He finds that it is barren, he curses it. I’m sure that this was not just because He was hungry and frustrated in his attempt to eat; to Him it was probably another symbolic representation of the spiritual state of Israel. By and large, they still had not received Him.
Yet this event turned into one of Jesus’ clearest teachings to the disciples on the subject of faith. Matthew’s account indicates that the fig tree withered immediately, while Mark shows a delay: a day after Jesus curses it, they pass by the tree and find it withered. The two accounts can be harmonized with Jesus’ subsequent teaching in Mark 11:23-24: “For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
Several important points here: first, Jesus says to speak directly to the mountain (or as he did: to the fig tree). Not to pray to God about your mountain. Second, he must believeand not doubt. If believing automatically excluded doubt, He would not have made this distinction—so it is possible to believe and to doubt at the same time (as was implied in the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:3-20, and James 1:6-8). The doubt can negate the faith, working in the opposite direction for a net effect of zero. Third, he should believe he receiveswhen he prays, not when he sees the manifestation. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Fourth, the manifestation may not be instantaneous, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t already been done (Mark 4:28). In this case, Matthew said that the tree withered instantly while Mark said it was the next day. Both are true: the tree instantly died at the root, but it took a day for the results to manifest on the visible parts of the tree. Even though Jesus did not see instant manifestation of His words, He did not doubt that it was already done. When the disciples passed by the next day and saw that the tree was withered, Peter pointed it out to Jesus in amazement. Jesus was probably exasperated when he replied, “Have faith in God,” to this. Remember, this is the last few days of His earthly ministry. He’s passing the baton to these disciples, and for three years now He has tried to impart these same ideas to them… yet Peter’s amazement indicates that He still hasn’t gotten it.
The energy of the crowd was palpable, the dull roar of their excited chatter at a fever’s pitch. Jesus had stopped them between Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. His throat was thick with emotion as he instructed Matthew and Bartholomew, “Go into the village opposite you,” here he pointed to Bethphage, “and as soon as you have entered it you will find a donkey and a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose them and bring them. And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them here.”
The two disciples nodded and hastened to obey. Jesus waited for them now, standing aloof from the rest of his disciples, and from the crowd.
How many of them knew that he was doing this in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9? he wondered. He had told his disciples over and over again that he was going to his death, but he knew they didn’t understand what he meant. They thought it was a euphemism for something else. Particularly now, when he was surrounded by adoring worshippers, all bubbling over with excitement that their king was about to enter Jerusalem.
This was the culmination of his earthly ministry. The earth had been waiting for this moment, for the King of Kings to enter the Holy City in glory, since the fall of man in the Garden. There was almost a “charge” in the air, of the spirit converging upon the physical; the people could do nothing but worship. Yet these same people would turn on him and cry out for his blood in less than a week.
He felt so very alone.
Thank you, Father, he prayed silently, that You never leave me or forsake me.
Normally people crowded Jesus everywhere he went, but something about His troubled expression today must have put them off. Many instead clustered around the exuberant Bartimaeus, whom Jesus had healed of blindness just a few hours earlier. He and his formerly blind friend had since cast off their beggar’s cloaks and joined his entourage. Of the two, Bartimaeus was by far the more gregarious, and he entertained the crowds. He seemed a born performer.
Matthew and Bartholomew returned, leading the colt and the donkey to Jesus by the reins. The people saw this, and immediately understood that they were about to head into the city now. They got busy, excitedly throwing their cloaks over the animals’ backs for Jesus to sit upon. Some of the people threw their cloaks in the road, an ancient Jewish practice for welcoming a conquering king. Others cried out, “Palm branches too!” This was a reference to a wider cultural practice of the same, and it met with great enthusiasm. The crowd scurried about, retrieving fallen palm branches and snapping or sawing off those that they could reach from nearby palm trees.
Jesus meanwhile mounted the colt. It meekly accepted his weight, despite the fact that it was unbroken. Matthew and Bartholomew raised their eyebrows and exchanged a look at this, impressed, but said nothing. Beside the colt which Jesus rode, John led the donkey by the reins like a groomsman. As his most empathic disciple, Jesus suspected that John sensed his mood and lingered nearby for emotional support. He felt a rush of affection for his friend.
As Jesus began the journey, the people spread the branches they had collected on the ground before the colt along with their cloaks, and began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
From oldest to youngest, they all picked up this refrain as Jesus began his last ride into Jerusalem. The people danced and sang, and once he’d passed over cloaks and palms, they picked them up again and ran forward, laying them on the road before him. Jesus’ chest constricted with conflicting emotions. The people who worshipped him now did so genuinely; and yet, their hearts were the stony ground of his parable. They were those who would immediately receive the word with gladness, but when tribulation or persecution arose, they would stumble and scatter. It would come all too soon.
The commotion of Jesus’ entourage drew a crowd of onlookers from Bethany as they descended the Mount of Olives, whispering among themselves. Jesus knew what they were saying. Many asked who he was that drew such a response. Others, the scribes and Pharisees who joined the onlookers, murmured amongst themselves against him. Finally, one of them cried out, “Teacher, do you hear what these are saying? Rebuke your disciples!”
Jesus looked at the one who had shouted and replied in as steady a tone as he could manage, “Yes, I hear. I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones themselves would cry out.”
The Pharisee who heard him turned to his fellows with furious grumbling. Jesus turned away, and from his position on the slope of the Mount of Olives, he saw Jerusalem spread out before him in the distance. The tears that he had kept at bay until then sprung unbidden to his eyes, and spilled over his cheeks. Most of the people did not notice, but John did, and placed his free hand on Jesus’ shoulder in comfort. Jesus cast him a quick, sad smile, and then looked back at the city.
“If you had known,” he whispered, “even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” He saw it all by the Spirit: the sacking of the city by the Romans in about forty years. It didn’t have to happen. After all of the Father’s promises to the Jewish nation under the Mosaic covenant, if they would obey… after he paid with his blood for a new Covenant that would not even require their physical obedience as such, only their love and worship… his stiff-necked people would still reject him. And with him, they would reject his blessing and protection, and would be scattered to the four corners of the earth. It broke his heart.
The sun began its descent in the sky just as Jesus descended the mountain, the crowd still crying out behind and before him. The journey was only two miles, but with the entourage on foot, retrieving the branches and cloaks from behind and laying them again before him, it was a slow procession.
Once they entered Jerusalem, though, more onlookers gathered and whispered. Jesus, now giving the donkey the opportunity to bear his weight, steered it toward the Temple at nightfall. He narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Most of the customers had gone, and the merchants’ booths were closing up for the night.
“We will come back here first thing tomorrow morning,” he growled to his disciples.
Peter and Andrew were nearest him when he said this, and nodded, understanding what he meant. They had been with him at the beginning of his ministry, when he had once before overturned tables of the money-changers and those who were buying and selling, and driven them out of the Temple. Now, three years later, they were back to all their old practices. They knew what was coming.
“Lord, should we return to Lazarus’s home for the night?” John suggested, as he looked around. “Most of the crowd has dispersed, so I’m sure we could return a lot faster than we came.”
Jesus sighed, troubled and weary. “Yes, let us go back. I do wish to be among friends tonight.”
As they passed by Bethphage, Bartholomew and Matthew returned the colt and the donkey to their owners, with Jesus’ thanks. Mary pressed Jesus and his disciples to stay with them every night of their sojourn in Jerusalem, if they so chose.
In the morning, the disciples rose before Lazarus and his sisters, mostly because Jesus did not wish for Martha particularly to feel obligated to feed all thirteen of them breakfast. So on their return journey to Jerusalem on foot the next morning, they were hungry. As they went, Jesus spied a curious sight: a fig tree in the distance already bore leaves, though it was not the season for figs. Fig trees typically bore figs before leaves, though, so this one seemed to promise a good breakfast for them all. Jesus veered off the path to the tree, and the others followed. But when he came to the tree, he found it barren: there was nothing but leaves.
He closed his eyes for a second as the symbolism of this hit him.
“I saw your fathers as the first fruits on the fig tree in its first season,” he quoted to himself in a whisper. “Yet now, ‘no grapes shall be on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things I have given them shall pass away from them.'” He opened his eyes again, envisioning what he knew he was about to encounter in the Temple and suddenly shaking with rage. He responded to the fig tree, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again!”
Then he marched on inexorably toward the Temple, so fast that the disciples had no almost jog to keep up with him. No one said a word for the rest of the journey, partly because they dared not when Jesus was in such a mood, and partly because they had no extra breath for it.
Jesus burst into the outer courts of the Temple without breaking his stride, and went straight to the nearest booth, in which merchant and customer were exchanging coins. The two of them looked up only when he was almost upon them, and had just time enough for their eyes to widen and to duck for cover as Jesus lifted the table and tossed it on its side, coins jingling to the ground all around them.
“Out!” he shouted, seething with rage as all the people scattered away from him. He turned to the next nearest table, one selling doves for sacrifice. The doves’ wings beat in their cages in terror, and flew to the tops of them just in time, as Jesus lifted the booth and all its wares in a mighty heave, sending it all crashing to the ground. The squawking of the doves mingled with the angry shouts of the merchants, but Jesus was louder than them all.
“You there!” he shouted, pointing at another merchant who had tried to pass unnoticed behind the onlooking crowds, his arms heavy with wares. “Out! Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves!'”
The customers beat a path to the door, now congested with merchants also trying to escape. None of them dared to confront Jesus. The scribes and the Pharisees alone lingered in their wake, consulting one another in angry whispers. Jesus knew what they plotted against him. He further knew that in a matter of days, he would willingly submit to their schemes by the will of the Father; for a short while, they would believe they had succeeded. He turned to glare at them now, though, as if daring them to speak aloud what they only had the courage to whisper.
Meanwhile, a young man ventured tentatively into the outer court of the Temple, leading a blind beggar by the hand. The beggar was one they all recognized. He had sat outside the Temple, begging for alms for many years. The pair hesitated, the young man looking anxiously at Jesus.
Jesus turned away from the Pharisees and saw the young man and the beggar, his face instantly softening. He reached out an arm and beckoned them forward. The young man’s face flooded with hope.
“Is… is it all right?” asked the young man. “Would you heal him?”
“The answer to that is always yes,” Jesus replied. “Come.”
The disciples watched and marveled as the atmosphere in the outer courts changed in minutes. Word must have spread throughout Jerusalem that Jesus had come to the Temple, and that he was healing all those brought to him. Soon the crowds were so thick that they could barely move inside the outer courts, and they spilled outside onto the streets. As it was on most days of Jesus’ ministry, he healed everyone who came to him, for many hours. The blind saw. The lame walked. The children cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
The Pharisees gnashed their teeth as they heard this, and elbowed through the crowd just as Jesus laid hands on an invalid boy and he sat up again, grinning at Jesus.
“Teacher! Do you hear what these are saying?” they demanded, indignant.
Jesus, still grinning back at the boy as he gave him back to his mother, did not bother to even look at the Pharisee who had spoken to him. He responded, still smiling but his voice now hard, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise’?”
“That verse reads ‘strength,’ not praise,” the Pharisee muttered back.
“You do not realize that the two words are interchangeable,” Jesus replied. “Their strength is found in their praise of me.”
When the hour was late and the people at last dispersed, Jesus and his disciples wearily made their way back to Bethany once more. They had inadvertently fasted all day, simply because they never had the opportunity to get away to eat. But Martha, bless her, would be expecting them for dinner, though they arrived well after nightfall.
They made their way back into the city the next morning. On their way, Peter happened to glance at the fig tree that Jesus had cursed. He blinked at it, astonished.
“Rabbi, look!” he pointed. “The fig tree which you cursed has withered away!”
Jesus too looked astonished, but at Peter, not at the tree. He had been with them now for three years. He had less than a week left on earth. After all they had seen, did they yet not understand?
I must be yet more explicit, Jesus thought, pausing to steady himself before he answered. “Have faith in God,” he said, very clearly. “For assuredly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain,” he pointed at the Mount of Olives behind them, “‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
Jesus kept walking as the disciples hung back, puzzling among themselves what he meant by this. He knew what they were thinking. He couldn’t really have meant he could speak to the mountain and remove it. That was a figure of speech, surely. Did he really mean you should believe you have what you ask for the moment you ask? Even if things look exactly the same in the natural? No, he couldn’t have meant that… well if he didn’t mean that, why did he say that? What did he mean, then? I don’t know, why don’t you ask him? …Me? Why don’t YOU ask him?
Jesus sighed, and prayed to the Holy Spirit, When You come, You’ll remind them, of this, and of everything I’ve said and done. He prayed this mostly to encourage and remind himself. They don’t understand now, but they don’t have You living inside of them yet to help them. By themselves, they can do nothing. But when they have You, they will understand all these things. It will be enough.
The Holy Spirit replied, Yes. It will be enough. They seem weak and confused now. Yet with these men, I will set the world on fire.